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Second Reading Speech by Senior Minister of State for Law, Mr Edwin Tong on Protection from Harassment (Amendment) Bill

Mr Speaker,

 

1.            I beg to move, that the Bill be now read a second time.

 

I.             Age of the Internet: The Case for Greater Online Regulation

 

A.            Nature of Internet

 

2.            Tim Berners-Lee introduced us to the World Wide Web in 1989. 30 years later:

 

  • More than half of global population - 4.4 billion - are active internet users;  
  • 3.5 billion of which are on social media.

 

3.            The ubiquity of technology, the way it is embedded in every aspect of our everyday lives, is a given.

 

  • It has gone beyond just being a useful tool to help us perform tasks,
  • To becoming the primary means by which we search for information, we communicate, and we socialize.
  • It is commonplace to see families, groups of friends, all sitting around a table, all looking down at their phones.

 

4.            Some figures to demonstrate the widespread use of the internet and social media are as follows:

 

  • Google handles more than 5.5 billion searches each day;
  • 2.27 billion monthly active users of Facebook;
  • There are 500 million tweets that are sent each day on Twitter;
  • And almost 5 billion videos are watched on YouTube every day.

 

5.            Singaporeans are at the vanguard of growth in internet use:

 

  • In 2017, Singapore, alongside Sweden, topped the Global Inclusive Internet Index. This index measures the adoption and ease of access to the internet.  

 

6.            There is no question about the benefits of the internet and social media, and the convenience that they bring to our lives.

 

  • But, these benefits have also come at a price.

 

B.            Problems with the Internet

 

7.            In exchange for this convenience, we have in turn bestowed significant power on the social media companies:

 

  • We have voluntarily surrendered personal data to them, exposing the most intimate details of our lives on social media websites;

 

  • We are often unaware that websites and companies are collecting and amassing our data, without our knowledge, until perhaps a scandal break

            - Last December, Facebook admitted that it struck deals with companies like Netflix, Spotify, that allowed them to read, write and delete private messages of users; 

            - Google Plus -

              - For instance, on two separate occasions last year, admitted that it had exposed personal data of over 50 million users in total to third party developers

              - After the first discovery, that mistake was hidden from public for over half a year.

            - Amazon’s Alexa, as another example, an “always on” device in our homes –        

            - Bloomberg recently revealed that the team charged with auditing commands given to Alexa had access to customers’ home addresses and other personal information.   

            - Alexa also recorded private conversation and sent it to users’ acquaintance.   

  • In short – there is no adequate way to moderate and control how this information is used, or shared by others.

 

8.            And it is not a simple matter of a leak of data, or loss of privacy

  • Many of us think that we still have some measure of control over our privacy.
  • Some brush off loss of privacy, saying it is a worthwhile exchange for the convenience and benefits that technology brings us,
  • But we fail to recognise that the digital traces we leave online can be connected and thereafter shared with others.
  • There are wide-reaching and sometimes devastating repercussions that could occur.

 

9.            There are some key areas of concern for us, and I will enumerate them:

 

(i)            Cyber-bullying

 

10.          Cyberbullying is

 

  • Traditional playground bullying transmuted into an online, new digital form.
  • In many ways, it is more insidious than traditional bullying:

    - There is anonymity, and there is a lack of physical confrontation,

    - And it allows people to engage in conduct that they may not ordinarily engage in normal daily life.

  • The effects are more wide-ranging, more long-lasting:

               - The abusive comments that are put up can be permanently displayed on the internet;

               - They are broadcast to a large online community;

               - And in truth, the victim has nowhere to hide.

 

11.          In our 2014 2nd Reading Speech on POHA on this Bill, the Government highlighted alarming trends about cyberbullying. Since then, matters have grown worse and I will cite a few numbers to this House:

 

  •     2017 survey commissioned by Talking Point   –

               - 3 out of 4 children and teenagers here reported being victims of cyberbullying.

 

  • In a 2019 Google survey -

               - Teachers in Singapore view the need to prevent cyberbullying as the most pressing concern when it comes to teaching children about online safety.

 

12.          The consequences of cyberbullying can be dire:

 

  • The Journal of Medical Internet Research published a study last year  

                 -    And showed that cyberbullying raised the risk of self-harm or suicidal behaviour amongst young people by 2.3 times.

  • The latest research suggests that bullying may cause physical changes in the brain, increasing the risk of mental illness.  
  • Studies have also shown that bullying in childhood has effects that last into adulthood as well:

                - Mental problems including anxiety, depression, suicidal tendencies;

                - Poor general health;

                - Lower educational, financial and social functioning.

 

13.          Many suffer in silence and we may not know until it is too late.

 

  • In Singapore for instance, reported a few years ago,

            - A 13-year-old girl was bullied by her friends on Facebook and in a WhatsApp group.

            - She started cutting herself with metal rulers and razor blades as a result, causing injury to herself.

 

  • In the US: a 12-year-old girl in Florida hung herself 

            - After being subject to cyberbullying by two 12-year-olds: rumours about having sexually transmitted diseases, vulgar name-calling, and the like.

 

  • In the UK: a 17-year-old boy in Manchester stepped in front of a train.  

            - After he was called a “black rat” and “ugly” online, both by people he knew and also by people who were complete strangers to him.

 

(ii)           Doxxing

 

14.          The second area of concern is doxxing. Doxxing is the disclosure of personal information to cause violence or harassment to others.

 

  • The term was originally used in the 1990s to describe a tactic used by hackers.   They would release dossiers of personal information about other hackers, to breach their anonymity and expose them to harassment.

 

15.          We are familiar with some local examples –

  •   The Caltex incident, members would know;
  •   The couple who pushed the old man at Toa Payoh hawker centre;  
  •   And of course, the Anton Casey case, where he had to leave Singapore as a result.

 

16.          Some may say, these people get what they deserve. But doxxing has a darker side. It has been used as a political tool by extremists:

 

  • In the US

            - An ISIS-linked group published names, addresses and phone numbers of 1,400 mostly US military and government personnel, urging supporters to attack them. Can you imagine if you were one of these 1,400?

 

  • In New Zealand:

            - In the wake of the Christchurch terror attacks, an anti-gun control Facebook group posted contact details of the Queenstown detective online.

            - One post featured an image of a rifle and words “come and take it”.

            - You can imagine how dangerous this information is, and can be, in the hands of the wrong people.

 

17.          Some other examples:

 

  • In New York: an 18-year-old boy, a gifted violinist.

            - He killed himself after his roommate live-streamed him behaving intimately with another man, to 150 people.

  • Also in New York: a journalist, Asher Wolf, made anti-war posts online

            - The address was shared on the dark web,

            - People posted dog faeces through to her in her mailbox.

 

  • In South Africa: a journalist, Karima Brown –

            - Her contact details published on Twitter by the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters.

            - Received onslaught of graphic messages threatening rape and murder.

            - Some threatened to expose her flesh by peeling her skin off.

 

  • Finally, in Boston there was a mis-identification of Boston bomber –

            - After the Boston Marathon bombings, online citizens on Reddit wrongly identified Sunil Tripathi as the Boston bomber.

            - The family received hundreds of threatening and anti-Islamic messages, even though they are not Muslim.

 

(iii)          Falsehoods

 

18.          Third, the area of falsehoods. Falsehoods are disseminated even more easily today for a number of reasons:

 

  • First, the psychology of internet users:

- Internet users are prone to confirmation bias;

- They have shorter attention spans: people skim, rather than critically evaluate content;

- They tend to share information because it triggers an emotional response, more so than because of its credibility;

- Users generally share links without even having read them;

- And when content gets shared enough times, they seem and appear more credible.

  • There is also a market for online disinformation tools and services

            - Fake social media accounts commonly used to spread falsehoods

                “Click farms” consisting of large number of low paid workers can be used to sell video views, “likes” and even votes.

     For instance, members will probably know that 1 million Instagram “likes” can be bought for    US$18 and 500 re-tweets for US$2.

     Bots can sometimes take the place of these low cost workers as well, enhancing the spread of this online disinformation

- Other online influencers can also be paid to spread false content.  

- And clickbaits can be used to profit from internet traffic.

 

19.          Falsehoods affect people, real people in real life as well as entities. Some examples –

 

  • It affects those close to home. One of our local actresses –
    • Message was circulated, suggesting that she had an STD.
    • She started receiving messages such as “Are you a prostitute?” and “Heard you have STD. Get well soon.”
    • Lewd comments continued to surface even after the facts were put out.
    • And it affected her reputation even as she tried to venture overseas.
  • Recently, the Select Committee on Online Falsehoods heard from a new citizen, Mr Hetamsaria –
    • Falsely identified in an article as a new citizen who was disappointed with Singapore and considering giving up his citizenship
    • The article was shared over 44,000 times on Facebook.
    • The family was deeply affected by numerous xenophobic comments made about them.

 

  • Just last week –
    • Fake news on Facebook that a veteran of our local acting scene, Lim Kay Tong, received a 16-year sentence. In truth this was a clickbait – when users clicked on the link, it led to a recipe for tikka; another linked to a recipe for pumpkin spice cheesecake, but the impact of a clickbait is self-evident.
    • There is also fake news circulating on WhatsApp that Fandi Ahmad was taken into custody for hurting someone – again, a clickbait.

 

20.          Falsehoods about companies can cause them irreversible damage, set off a public relations nightmare and cause economic damage.

 

  • Even giants like Coca-Cola are not immune
    • There have been stories claiming that parasite worms were found in bottles of Dasani across the country. Clear parasite worms.
    • Several hundred people had been sent to hospital as a result.
    •  That FDA had shut down a manufacturing plant.
    • Coca-Cola of course, denied this, as did the FDA.

 

  • NTUC FairPrice, closer to home, affected by multiple rumours -
    • In 2007, photo suggesting NTUC sold halal pork circulated on the internet.

                   - Similar rumours later affected Ya Kun Kaya Toast and a Yong Tau Foo business at Westgate shopping mall.

  • In 2017, members will recall that there was a post going around social media suggesting that FairPrice’s house brand rice was made of plastic, all untrue.

 

21.          Studies paint a bleak picture of a world where the spread of falsehoods over social media is quick, wide and pervasive, whilst truth even if it corrects the original falsehood lags far behind:

 

  • In an MIT study –
    • The study analysed 126,000 rumors that spread on Twitter over 12 years.
    • The study showed that rumours traveled faster, farther, deeper and more broadly than truth in all categories of information.   
    • A study showed that tweets which perpetrated a falsehood about Ebola virus being transmitted by air, outnumbered tweeted corrections by 2.7 to 1.
    • Another study by the Journal of Experimental Psychology indicated that repeated exposure to a false statement on social media made it more believable.
    • Finally, a University of Buffalo study - 20,000 tweets during Hurricane Sandy and the Boston Marathon bombing, showed that 86 to 91 % of active twitter users spread falsehoods – nearly as many did nothing to correct it.

 

C.            Internet Platforms have failed to take action

 

22.          It is self-evident, partly from what I have seen and partly I’m sure from members’ own experience, that the internet is almost impossible to control – akin to a lawless jungle.

 

23.          As in any jungle, the weakest and most vulnerable are disproportionately affected. Recent surveys show:

 

  • Multiracial females have the highest risk of being harassed online;
  • Adolescent girls are more likely to experience cyberbullying than boys;
  • 75% of children with autism are bullied online;
  • 70% of children with physical defects are bullied online;
  • LGBT teens are 5 times more at risk of being abused on Facebook than non-LGBT teens.

 

24.          This online harassment translates into real world violence.

 

  • One in 3 women in the US experience domestic violence. Nearly 90% of domestic abuse shelters and programs report that abusers have intimidated and made threats against them using electronic means.
  • An Australian survey found that 98 percent of domestic violence practitioners reported clients who experienced technology-facilitated abuse.  

 

25.          We cannot trust the internet companies to regulate this jungle. Why? Because the primary motivation is the pursuit of profit.

 

  • An internal company memo by Facebook Vice President Mr. Andrew Bosworth in June 2016  
    • He claimed that any growth on Facebook was good. He said: “Maybe it costs a life by exposing someone to bullies. Maybe someone dies in a terrorist attack coordinated on our tools.

                    And still we connect people.

                    The ugly truth is that we believe in connecting people so deeply that anything that allows us to connect more people more often is *de facto* good.”

  • This memo was leaked two weeks after the Cambridge Analytica scandal broke.

 

26.          There is not enough transparency in how administrative standards are derived and enforced – there is no democratic process and no court process.

 

  • Facebook only made public its community standards in 2018 after Cambridge Analytica scandal erupted – 14 years after Facebook was first founded.

 

27.          People have no faith in social media giants to contain harassment. Users have complained that social media companies have taken days to address their complaints about harassment, if at all.

 

  • A poll this year in UK showed:
    • More than half the reports that women lodge about harassment on Facebook are met with either no response or a response that the behavior did not breach community guidelines.

 

  • A Singaporean girl saw a Minister to complain that:
    • She had her picture put up on Facebook by a male acquaintance, along with derogatory remarks containing sexual innuendo;
    • She wrote to Facebook, whose response was that it did not violate their community standards.
  • Last year, US Democratic strategist received threatening tweets  
    • Complained to Twitter, who said it did not violate rules against abusive behavior.
    • A man later sent pipe bombs to politicians, and then at that stage, Twitter said it’s earlier assessment was wrong.
  • The actress who accused James Franco of sexual misconduct was also repeatedly harassed on Instagram.
    • She made a report to FBI and said that Instagram ignored almost all of her complaints.

 

28.          Tech companies have admitted that they are unable to deal with some of these problems.

 

29.          So we need a solution. The amendments to POHA, today, give power to the people so that the man on the street can take back the truth, and find a way to reclaim his dignity.

 

  • We seek to simplify the process

            - To make it easier for the man on the street to get recourse, to get redress.

  • Make clear what remedies he can get

            - Enable him to tackle falsehoods and harassment once they are published;

            - Enable him to put out the truth, to counter falsehoods that may affect his livelihood, or in the case of a company, its business.

 

II.            Role of POHA

 

30.          So first, let me take members back to our first attempt, back in 2014, to deal with online harassment holistically, when this piece of legislation was first enacted.

 

  • This, members would recall, was the first piece of legislation dedicated to protecting victims of harassment, both offline and online.
  • It laid down clear norms as to what constitutes unacceptable social behavior.

 

31.          The presence of this framework encouraged victims to come forward to seek help, to seek redress.

 

32.          To date:

 

  • More than 3,000 Magistrate’s Complaints filed under the Act.
  • Over 1,700 prosecutions have been brought.
  • About 900 convictions have been obtained.
  • 500 applications for protection orders under the Act
  • And of which, over 200 such orders were granted.

 

33.          These numbers demonstrate how important POHA has been as an avenue of relief to victims of harassment.

 

34.          And in introducing the revisions today, we have taken a keen interest in feedback on POHA from at least these three groups,

 

  • First, the courts;
  • Second, the civil society groups;
  • And finally, from the victims of harassment themselves.

 

III.           Feedback on how to Better Help Victims of Harassment

 

A.            Court Processes and Protection Orders

 

35.          Let me sketch out the feedback that we have obtained, given to us by these three groups which have been instrumental in shaping the amendments behind this Bill.

 

36.          First, the process of obtaining relief under the Act. It is clear to us that processes under POHA can be simplified further, made cheaper and also faster.

 

  • The current process of applying for an expedited protection order (“EPO”) and a protection order (“PO”) can be streamlined.
    • The forms can be made simpler.
    • Some victims have said they feel that they need the assistance lawyers to navigate the current process.
  • Currently, to apply for a PO
    • It costs about $300 - $500
    • In contrast, there is a simpler and more inexpensive method to apply for a personal protection order (“PPO”) under the Women’s Charter.
  • Those victims who choose instead to file a Magistrate’s Complaint:
    • There are some difficulties. First, the outcome of the Complaint often turns on the conclusion of police investigations.
    • Victims do not know when investigations might conclude.
    • And a victim who has filed a Complaint with the Magistrate does not have the benefit of the protections afforded by a PO.

                        - If a PO is necessary, the victim has to separately apply for one in the civil courts.

                        - We can simplify the procedure, so that the victim does not have to provide evidence of his or her harassment more than once.

                        - We can also ensure that we prevent the duplication because reliving the experience only causes further mental anguish for the victim.

 

37.          Second, feedback received is that the courts also should be given more powers when making orders. In particular:

  • The scope of POs should be widened.
    • It should cover related persons of the victims, as harassers often target persons close to the victim in order to get to the victim.
  • The courts should be able to order offenders to be sent for psychiatric assessment and treatments where appropriate
    • As there are cases where mental illnesses may well be the root of the offender’s behavior.

 

38.          Third, it was suggested that POs should also be given more bite.

 

  • At present, a breach of a PO is not arrestable.
  • This perceived lack of severity might be another factor which deters victims from coming forward and applying for POs.

 

B.            Victims of Intimate Partner Violence

 

39.          Our attention was also drawn to a specific group of victims – victims of intimate partner violence.

 

40.          These are often victims in a romantic relationship.

  • They may be dating, or married.
  • If unmarried, they do not qualify for protection under the Women’s Charter, which only protects victims of family violence.

 

41.          Some might assume that it might be easier for an unmarried victim to break off the abusive relationship.

 

  • However, the psyche of an abused partner is sometimes the same, whether married or unmarried.
  • The intimacy of the relationship allows the abuser to create a psychological hold over the victim and makes it difficult for the victim to break free.
  • Research shows that romantic love can sometimes be like an addiction.

 

42.          A PAVE study in 2012, PAVE in Singapore, showed:

 

  • 1 in 3 unmarried persons between the ages of 15 and 34 were found to be in an abusive relationship.
  • Of these, two-thirds had their first abusive relationship in their teens.
  • On average, for 20% of those who were abused by their spouses or were themselves abusers, the abuse started when they were first dating.

 

 

43.          Let me highlight the case of Mdm A.  

 

  • Mdm A dated a man for 5 years, they had 5 children
  • Dating violence started in the first year of their relationship.
  • The man began by shouting vulgarities at her.
  • It escalated to physical violence – he hit, kicked, slammed her on the floor, threatened her with a knife.
  • And all of these, in front of the children.
  • He threatened to kill himself or the children, and abused the children.
  • He would follow Mdm A everywhere and track her whereabouts via calls, texts, GPS.
  • And when Mdm A decided to seek help, she could not apply for a PPO under the Women’s Charter as she was unmarried.
  • Her first child who did not carry the man’s name on her birth certificate was in the same position.
  • She could only apply for PPOs for the other 4 children.
  • Mdm A and her children had to go to a crisis shelter, where they are living now.
  • The man is in a new relationship.

 

44.          There are other such cases and I’m sure members themselves would be familiar with their own experiences.

 

  • We need to find a way for people in intimate relationships, who are subject to serious abuse, to get POs more easily.
  • PAVE, in particular, highlighted this strongly to us. And has advised the Government on how best to deal with the situation.
  • As a result, we amended the Penal Code yesterday and we are proposing amendments to POHA today to further strengthen the recourse.

 

IV.          Proposed Amendments

 

45.          We have carefully considered the feedback, some of which I have sketched out, from our stakeholders alongside the need for greater regulation.

 

A.            Simplifying the Court Experience

 

46.          We will improve the process of obtaining relief from the Courts. Let me start with that in the Bill.

 

(i)            A unified court

 

47.          The Bill has a new Part 3A will establish the Protection from Harassment Court (“PHC”).

 

  • The PHC will be dedicated to dealing with harassment matters, whether online or offline, and will have oversight of all criminal and civil cases under the Act.
  • It will be sited in the State Courts.
  • And will have the jurisdiction of a District Court.
  • Judges will be specially trained to deal with harassment matters.
  • Volunteers will be available on hand, to help victims navigate the court process.

 

(ii)           Leveraging the interplay between civil and criminal proceedings

 

48.          In egregious cases:

 

  • It may not suffice to grant the victim a civil remedy in the form of a PO.
  • The law may need to deal with the offender even if the victim has not already gone to the police.

 

 

49.          So in the Bill, there is a Clause 18:

 

  • Which imposes a duty on a judge granting the EPO to consider whether a criminal investigation is warranted. So the court has a proactive duty to look at facts, circumstances in the course of granting the EPO.
  • If it is, the judge must refer the matter to the police. The intention is for serious cases of hurt or harassment which come to the court to be referred to the police.  
  • This will ensure that the State can intervene, and intervene at an early stage, to reduce the risk of further or greater hurt to the victim.

 

50.          In addition, we are taking measures to help victims to meet the burden of proof:

 

  • Clauses 16(1) and 17(1) provide that if the respondent has been convicted of a hurt offence under the Penal Code, or a POHA offence, the requirement to show that the respondent has contravened POHA will be deemed satisfied.
  • In other words, the victim will not have to prove his or her case more than once.

 

(iii)          In terms of streamlining procedures and expediting timelines

 

51.          We have worked with the State Courts to do so, so that the process of applying for a PO under POHA will, as far as possible, be aligned to that under the Women’s Charter.

 

52.          The victim will be able to file an application for a PO using a simplified form, at the PHC or online.

 

53.          Relief will also be quicker and more permanent:

 

  • Clause 17 will ensure that EPOs will be in place until conclusion of proceedings unless they are successfully challenged – the victim will no longer have to renew EPOs every 28 days
  • The hearings will also be conducted more quickly.
  • The PHC will aim to conduct hearings for EPOs within 48 to 72 hours of application.
  • Where there is an element of violence involved, the PHC will try to conduct hearings for EPOs within 24 hours of the application.
  • The PHC will aim to conduct hearings for final POs within 4 weeks of the application.
  • The timelines, of course, will be subject to practical constraints.
    • Such as for example, if the application is filed over the weekend, the Courts may only be able to hear it on the next working day.
    • Applicants should, of course, always seek police intervention if they are in immediate physical danger.
    • Finally, should the court decide to stay proceedings for a PO under the new Section 13A pending a criminal investigation, it may take longer for a PO to be granted. However, in that situation, an EPO will be in place until the PO is granted.

 

54.          We hope that these measures will relieve some of the anxieties that an applicant faces when invoking the court process and encourage those in need to come forward.

 

B.            Enhancing the Protection for Harassment Victims and Related Persons

 

55.          Next, in terms of enhancing the protection for harassment victims and related persons, we will enhance the protection for this category of persons, expand the scope of POs and the powers available to the court when granting the PO.

 

(i)            Enhancing protection afforded by POs/EPOs

 

56.          Let me explain.

 

57.          First, clause 16(1) widens the ambit of POs to deal specifically with the situation where an offender may publish a harassing communication which is then shared by others.

 

  • A PO can now be made to prevent the publication of communications which are not just identical, but also substantially similar to the offending communication.
  • In addition, clause 16(2) clarifies that internet intermediaries can be ordered to disable access to an offending communication published on their platforms. This is to try to clamp down on harassing communications going viral, or spreading even further.

 

58.          Second, clause 16(2) extends the scope of POs to protect related persons of the victim.

 

  • This will ensure that individuals, such as Mdm A in my example, will be able to obtain POs for herself and her children, rather than have to live with the abuse and to worry about the potential harassment or abuse to her children.

 

59.          Third, we have acted on feedback that the courts should be empowered to proactively intervene in cases where the harasser’s conduct may not cross the threshold of criminal or dangerous conduct, but where the facts demonstrate that the harasser is mentally ill.

 

  • Clause 19 empowers the court to:
    • Order the respondent to undergo a psychiatric assessment after it grants a PO and undergo psychiatric treatment if certain criteria are fulfilled –

                    -The respondent must have psychiatric conditions susceptible to treatment, capable of being treated

                    -The respondent must be suitable for treatment

                    -And the psychiatric condition must have contributed to contravention that formed basis for making the PO, having a nexus with the conduct complained of.

  • The criteria and nature of the treatment will largely mirror the treatment regime under the Criminal Procedure Code, with appropriate safeguards.

            -Failure to comply with the orders will be punishable as contempt of court.

 

60.          Two further amendments in clause 16(1)(a) clarify the law.

 

  • POs can be obtained against entities who commit contraventions under the Act. The common law principles of attribution will apply.
    • This will address cases that have already been brought before our courts, for example, where wayward companies might have crossed the threshold of lawful debt collection into criminal behavior such as intentional harassment or violence, in the context of carrying out their debt collection.
    • Companies may have sent different runners to harass a victim.
    • Victims can now obtain a single PO against the company and do not have to bring each runner who conducts each of these harassing acts to court each time.
  • Domestic exclusion orders are available under the Act.
    • These orders, which are also available under the Women’s Charter, will allow victims to exclude a harasser from their shared residence.
    • This is so even if the harasser has a proprietary interest in the property.

 

(ii)           Strengthening Recourse and Increasing Deterrence

 

61.          We are also taking measures to strengthen the recourse available to victims, and increase the deterrence factor of the remedies available under the Act.

 

  • First, clauses 4 to 10 and 13 clarify that entities can be liable for contraventions under the Act.
    • They can be prosecuted or sued for damages.
    • The common law principles of attribution will apply.
    • This will discourage entities from allowing their employees to harass customers.
  • Second, this House heard yesterday about amendments to the Penal Code to double penalties for offences committed against vulnerable persons.
    • Under the proposed POHA amendments, clause 10 provides that penalties for POHA offences against vulnerable persons, be they adults or children, will likewise be doubled.
  • Third, we spoke earlier about the pressing need to protect victims of intimate partner violence. The Government has amended the Penal Code to provide for enhanced penalties for specific offences committed against intimate partners.
    • In a similar vein, Clause 11 of this Bill doubles the penalty if a POHA offence is committed against an intimate partner.

 

62.          We are also taking steps to ensure that a harasser who reoffends is also dealt with severely.

 

  • At present, as I mentioned earlier, breach of a PO under POHA is not an arrestable offence.
    • This is in contrast with the position under the Women’s Charter.
  • In response to concerns that POs issued under the Act are perceived as ineffective, we propose to amend the law.
    • Clause 22 provides that if a harasser breaches a PO, this will be arrestable in prescribed circumstances, such as where hurt is caused or where the harassing conduct persists despite the issuance of a PO.   
    • In addition, Clause 9(b) provides that if a harasser breaches a PO more than once, he will be liable on subsequent conviction to twice the maximum punishment prescribed.   This also brings the Act in line with the Women’s Charter.

 

C.            Online Harassment

 

63.          I turn now to online harassment. I spoke earlier about the scourge of technology when not handled properly. I would now like to turn to amendments that have been targeted towards online behaviour and harassment.

 

(i)            Doxxing

 

64.          First, on doxxing. To understand the basis of the doxxing amendments, let me first highlight a case that might fall through the cracks today:

 

  • A Singaporean girl, whom I shall not name, was in the middle of her ‘O’ levels.
  • She discovered edited photographs of herself on a Tumblr blog with pornographic content.
  • She started receiving unsolicited messages on her social media platforms.
  • One day, she noticed a man following her home.
  • Her former best friend, it turned out, had emailed her full name, photos, address and names of the school and tuition centres that she attended to over 60 porn blogs.
  • With this knowledge, she retreated from her social interactions, afraid to even leave home.
  • This young girl was a victim of harassment.
  • However, the email sent by her friend to the porn blogs, despite its malicious intent, may not have been caught by existing POHA provisions which require communications to be “threatening, abusive or insulting” in themselves.

 

 

65.          The doxxing amendments are an extension of the existing provisions on harassment, and seek to deal with this lacuna in the law today.

 

66.          Clauses 4(a) and 6(d) introduce the offence of doxxing. For this offence, the intention or knowledge of the publisher is key. Doxxing will be made out if the person published identity information of another person:

 

  • Intending to cause harassment, alarm or distress;
  • Intending to cause the victim to fear that unlawful violence will be used against him or another person, or to facilitate unlawful violence against the person; or
  • Knowing or having reasonable cause to believe that the publication is likely to cause the victim to fear that unlawful violence will be used against him or another person, or to facilitate unlawful violence against the victim.

 

67.          Identity information is defined as information that on its own or with other information identifies, or purports to identify, the victim. This includes photographs, contact details, address and place of employment.

 

68.          The new offence will not affect most people, who continue to engage constructively on the internet. It does not stop them from:

 

  • Identifying the perpetrators of crimes, including traffic offences or POHA offences.
  • Or indeed from posting videos of public disputes to give a factual account of an incident

 

69.          On the other hand,

 

  • Publishing someone’s contact details to netizens intending to harass or alarm that person, or intending that other netizens use the information to harass or hurt the person, is unacceptable.
  • Publishing photographs and contact details of a girl, intending that others use those details to harass her, is likewise unacceptable.

 

   

70.          There have been concerns raised that the new doxxing provisions could be too broad

 

  • Similar concerns were raised about the existing harassment provisions back in 2014
  • Harassment is heavily fact specific
    • Doxxing – a subset of that, is no different
  • The law today, in fact with these amendments adds clarity:
    • Doxxing is currently prosecuted through a mix of provisions arising in different pieces of legislation
    • Courts will now be able to develop a body of jurisprudence on when the offence is made out
    • Furthermore, existing case law on when intent is made out in the circumstances can be relied upon

 

71.          Other concerns have also been raised about whether the new provisions can deal with anonymous posters. Let me deal with that.

 

  • Anonymity is not a new issue under the Act
  • Minister Shanmugam, when he spoke on this Bill in 2014, addressed this.
  • Even if the respondent or publisher is anonymous, he may be identified by an internet location address, website, or other unique identifiers as the court may order
  • In addition, POs are binding, even if person behind account may not be identified
  • The POs can be served on multiple accounts as well

 

72.          As with other victims of harassment such as cyberbullying and intimate partner violence, a victim of doxxing will be able to avail himself of the streamlined processes and expedited court timelines.

 

  • The court may order that the offending communication be taken down by the offender and persons who have shared the original post or substantially similar posts.
  • Where appropriate, the court may also order that an internet intermediary disable access to the offending post.
  • And finally, where an EPO involving online doxxing is involved, the Court will aim to hear the application within 24 hours.

 

(ii)           Online Falsehoods

 

a)            Context

 

73.          Let me now turn to online falsehoods, first, in terms of setting the context. Aside from doxxing, the Bill also enhances existing measures available to address the spread of falsehoods by repealing and reenacting the falsehoods regime.

 

  • The falsehoods regime under POHA aims to help individuals, to give recourse and redress against the effects of falsehoods
  • Whilst at the same time, striking the balance with the right of people to hold their own opinion and debate matters of interest

 

74.          Broadly, POHA categorises the remedies available by types of orders which are available (split into five categories). Section 15 deals with the final orders which can be given in cases of falsehoods and section 16 deals, amongst others, with interim orders for the same.

 

  • This is similar to the approach taken in section 12, which makes a PO available against both persons, entities and internet intermediaries.
  • In contrast, the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Bill has distinct parts dealing with individuals versus corporate entities. These are found in parts III and parts IV of that Bill.

 

75.          For the avoidance of doubt, the falsehoods regime under sections 15 and 16 of POHA, and clause 20 of the Bill, deals with false statements of fact. This includes misleading statements but does not cover criticism, opinions, satire and parody.

 

  • Let me make this clear
    • First, a statement that omits material facts is misleading if the statement would have been considered by a reasonable person to be misleading by reason of such an omission.
    • If, for example, A says that B is dishonest, that is a statement of opinion and not a false statement of fact. However, if A goes on to say that B was convicted by a court of cheating, then

                - This is a false statement of fact if B was never convicted of such an offence;

                - Going back to my example, the statement is also false if B was subsequently acquitted on appeal, because the statement conveys a false meaning by reason of its omission of B’s subsequent acquittal

 

b)            Expanding Scope of Orders

 

76.          Once a false statement about a subject is established,

 

  • Clause 20 sets out five orders that may be available to address it.
  • Interim relief will be available for all orders save the General Correction Order.
    • This was necessary given the speed at which online falsehoods can now spread.
  • Interim relief can be obtained ex parte in the case of interim stop publication and interim notification orders, both of which are targeted at individuals or entities which publish falsehoods.
    • In the case of interim disabling orders and targeted interim notification orders, which are directed at internet intermediaries, notice of the application first has to be served on the intermediary
    • This is because the internet intermediary is not directly responsible for the falsehood, and should be given a chance to explain its position in court, should it wish to contest the application

 

77.          Let me explain each order in turn, and start by saying that all of the orders, save the General Correction Order, are already available under the Act today. As is the case under the current Act, the court will not make any of these orders unless satisfied, amongst other things, that:

 

  • One: The statement being complained of is false, and
  • Two: It is just and equitable in the circumstances to make the order being sought.

 

78.          The test of when it is just and equitable to grant a section 15 order has been set out by our courts in case law.  

 

  • It is a flexible one, taking into account various factors including but not limited to:
    • Nature of the statement;
    • The seriousness of the allegation made;
    • The degree to which the statement has been publicized;
    • Whether the subject of the false statement has the means to publicise his or her own version of the truth.

 

79.          A stop publication order requires a person or entity not to publish a false statement or any substantially similar statement.

 

  • It is already available today as I mentioned.
  • The orders have been amended to include substantially similar statements.
  • This ensures that publishers cannot game the system by simply amending the statement slightly, but such that it is still false.
  • As with the present regime, stop publication orders can be taken out against multiple individuals or entities
    • Applicant need not take out separate applications against multiple persons.
    • Anyone who publishes the false statement or a substantially similar statement is bound upon service unless the court has dispensed with service.
    • This deals with the situation where an anonymous user may use different online accounts to publish the same false statement.
    • This will be covered by the order, regardless of which account is used.

 

80.          Correction orders:

 

  • Next, on correction orders. These are available today, but fleshed out in the amendment Bill.
  • Spoke earlier about how falsehoods travel faster, deeper and more broadly than truth; and that repeated exposure to false statements on social media make them more believable.
  • Correction orders seek to address this problem.
  • There may be cases where it is not enough to order a respondent to stop publishing a falsehood,
  • And it may need to go beyond that to require the responding person or entity to put the truth out there.
  • The respondent in such a case will be required to:
    • Publish a notice online or in a printed publication, stating that the statement in question has been found to be false, and correcting the false statement;
    • The respondent will also be required to make the notice available to persons, or specified description of persons, as determined by the court.

 

81.          Next, on disabling orders which are available today.

 

  • They can be made to require an internet intermediary to disable access to a material containing a false statement on the internet intermediary’s platform,
  • So that it is no longer available to viewers.

 

82.          Next, targeted correction orders which are also available today. They are in like vein to correction orders but can be made against an internet intermediary.

 

  • It requires an internet intermediary to distribute a correction of the false statement to viewers of a false statement on the internet intermediary’s platform, so it carries the corrections on the platform.
  • Again, the purpose of this is to ensure that where the false statement has been published by way of the internet intermediary service, the truth is made accessible to viewers of the false statement.

 

83.          Finally, the general correction orders which are new.

 

Let me describe them:

  • They can be made where the court is satisfied that serious harm to the reputation of the subject, whether professional or otherwise, has been caused or is likely to be caused.
  • Unlike the other orders, they operate against a prescribed third party who has not been responsible for the publication of the false statement.

                    - This third party, as an example, could be a news outlet, broadcaster, or internet intermediary.

  • The prescribed third party can be required to publish a notice stating that the statement in question has been found to be false, as well as a correction of that false statement.

 

  • The rationale of this:
    • Well, the ubiquity of technology nowadays means that falsehoods may spread across different platforms. It may start on one, it may carry through to one or several others.
    • It might be difficult to identify who has been exposed to a falsehood.
    • As mainstream purveyors of information, prescribed third parties have a sufficiently wide reach to help to correct viral falsehoods which are particularly serious or persistent.

 

  • What are some of the safeguards:
    • As this order imposes obligations on third parties, interim relief will not be available.
    • The third party should be allowed to fully contest the claim if it wishes to, before an order is granted.
    • However, a victim can still rely on other forms of interim relief to stop or stem the spread of falsehood, such as an interim disabling order or interim stop publication order.

c)            Procedure

 

84.          In terms of the relevant procedure for these orders,

 

  • The same streamlined processes and expedited timelines I spoke of will apply.
  • The PHC will aim to conduct hearings for interim orders within 48-72 hours of application.
  • And given the speed at which online publications can go viral, the PHC will aim to hear an application for an interim order within 24 hours of application if the false statement has been published online, subject to any requirements to give notice.  
  • The interim order will remain in place until it expires or has been cancelled.
  • As with POs, the PHC will aim to hear applications for final section 15 orders within 4 weeks of application.

 

d)            Compliance

 

85.          Finally, non-compliance with orders will be punishable with contempt.

 

  • It is similar to the current regime
  • And contempt only if non-compliance is intentional

 

86.          For those who want to appeal against an order under section 15

 

  • They will still need to seek leave under Section 21 of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act.

 

e)            Extending protection to entities

 

87.          In light of the decision by the Court of Appeal in AG v Ting Choon Meng, which ruled that only individual persons have recourse under section 15, clause 20 of the Bill states that both individuals and entities can apply for remedies under section 15.

 

  • As with the other remedies under POHA, the Government will not have recourse under section 15 – Government will have to rely on POFMA, currently a Bill.
  • Likewise, section 15 orders can be made against both individual persons and corporate entities, but not the Government.

 

88.          Allowing entities to seek relief will ensure that the companies and their staff do not suffer, lose their livelihoods, as a result of falsehoods.

V.            Conclusion

 

89.          Mr Speaker, Sir, after five years, we have introduced a significant number of amendments to keep pace with changes in technology, and to be responsive to feedback as to the ease with which applications can be brought, and relief granted.

 

90.          The Bill builds upon an existing ecosystem to deal with harassment and to offer victims recourse and redress.

 

  • Equally integral to this ecosystem are the many volunteers, psychiatric institutions, the police, news agencies, schools and many others.
  • We are grateful for their efforts in highlighting harassment issues, broadcasting the remedies available, and also assisting the victims.

 

91.          Finally, I must underline that the levers that we have devised under the Act are responsive in nature. They offer protection, recourse and redress.

 

  • At the end of the day, harassment is a social problem which requires a concerted social response.
  • We all bear a responsibility for ensuring that harassment is not perpetrated, or escalated.
  • This is the surest way to provide victims with protection.
  • We should not tolerate any harassment or violence, least of all those which occur in an intimate partner or family setting.

 

92.          Mr Speaker, Sir, I beg to move.

Last updated on 08 May 2019